One interesting, and mildly surprising turn of events over the past two years, has been the assent of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) to the mainstream. While seemingly a new MMA organization crops up daily, there is a clear group at the head of the pack, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Without devoting much time to UFC history, it is worth mention that the popular, regulated sport on cable TV today is very different for its Pay-Per-View only, rules optional, version in the early 1990s. The increase in rules, mostly in regards to safety, has obviously help its cause it terms being sanctioned in various venues. Its popularity, however, has a lot to do with its exposure on the Spike network, and the reality TV show, The Ultimate Fighter (TUF).
TUF is based around young fighters, sharing a house but ultimately competing for a UFC contract. The show served the dual purpose of developing new fighters, and developing their fan bases, while providing exposure for their coaches, established UFC fighters. To anyone who has watched the show, it is pretty clear that the worst sins include failing to make weight (not torturing yourself enough), quitting mentally or the show altogether (in particular if it is for a young lady and/or cabin/camera fever), or excessive inappropriate violence away from competition and training (preserving the image of UFC as a skilled competitors and not crazy “thugs”). During the first two seasons of TUF, the four coaches chosen (Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, and Rich Franklin) were pushed as the biggest stars (along with color commentator Joe Rogan) that would end up taking the company into a period of unprecedented growth.
Couture, 44, is the recently retired former Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight champion. A UFC Hall of Famer, his nicknames are “the Natural” and “Captain America.”
Liddell, is arguably the most visible UFC star courtesy of recent appearances on “Entourage” and in Nickelback’s “Rockstar” video. He was UFC Light Heavyweight during his stint on TUF.
Hughes, too was a UFC Champion, Welterweight Division, during his first appearance as a TUF coach. A farmer from the Midwest, Hughes enters the ring to Hank Williams Jr.’s, “A Country Boy Can Survive.”
Franklin, is a former math teacher with rugged good looks. He’s from America’s Heartland in Cincinnati, Ohio and was UFC Middleweight champion during his time on TUF.
All four are now former UFC Champions and all four are white Americans.
This fact is not lost on boxing promoter Bob Arum. In July of 2007, Arum suggested that the UFC is “a bunch of white guys that can’t compete in any other sport.” Arum has also stated in regards to the UFC that, “They’ve attracted a very young audience. But look who they appeal to. Look at the UFC fighters. Ninety per cent are big white guys from the Mid-west. Look at boxing — it’s like a rainbow. Blacks, Mexicans, English, everything.”
An expert on race relations, Arum has been accused of saying ‘We will let the Blacks and the Latinos fight in the ring and we will count the money on the outside’.” Nonetheless, the fact that Arum raises the issue of the prevalence of whiteness as evidence of an inferior sport is quite interesting and points to a sporting paradox.
The strength of the UFC as a brand is in its targeted audience. Its cable television outlet is Spike (a network clearly marketed towards young males). It does quite remarkable ratings with the coveted 18-34 year old male demographic. Yet as UFC strives to become a global brand it may no longer continue to reap the benefits as one of several niche products enabled by the growth of mass media.
Of the four faces of the UFC previously mentioned, Couture walked away from the sport two days ago thus vacating his Heavyweight title. The other three lost their titles in spectacular knockout fashion. “Rampage” Jackson, an African American from Memphis, stopped Liddell in the first round. Franklin lost his title in the first round to dark-skinned Brazilian Anderson Silva. Hughes dropped his title to French-Canadian Georges St. Pierre. The interesting thing about this turn of events is that while the UFC clearly promoted certain individuals in its quest for profitability, they also acquired Silva and Jackson, who achieved success elsewhere, and granted both title matches in only their second UFC bouts.
Part of the interesting aspect of the UFC being relatively small (in relationship the NFL, MLB, NBA, et cetera) coupled with its near extinction only a few years ago, is that UFC President, Dana White, is not only a hardcore fan but has significant input in terms of the direction of the product. Yet, the hardcore fan base that has stuck with the product seems drawn more to the sport and less to the stars. Moreover, it seems as if the sentiment is one of which commitment to the MMA community supercedes (in most cases) potential racial animosity. Consequently, during its existence, fans on the popular Sherdog web site frequently preferred the Japanese based Pride Fighting Championship to the UFC and are current taking the UFC to task for failing to sign Russian superstar Fedor Emelianenko and there are several threads chastising White for referring to Emelianenko’s management team as “crazy Russians.” Yet as most organizations know by now, it is probably not wise to cater to the Internet audience as opposed to the casual fan.
It is this casual audience that Scott Gold of the LA Times on January 14, 2007, “claims regularly boo black and Asian fighters.” During an Elite XC match (another fighting organization) in Mississippi earlier this year, African American (and Sherdog favorite) Charles Bennett was booed mercilessly during his postmatch interview after knocking out a white opponent, KJ Noons. The reaction on Sherdog was generally one of surprise and followed with sarcastic quips about racial intolerance in the US (ranging from Mississippi to Boston).
On October 20th, in Cincinnati, Rich Franklin has a shot at regaining his title from Anderson Silva. It will be interesting to the see the reaction Silva. It will also be interesting to see if the globalization of the UFC will establish MMA in mainstream U.S. sporting culture or if it will only serve to reposition UFC as another failed “great white hope.”